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October 24, 2002

The Battle Over Mesivta

http://www.jewishjournal.com/education/article/the_battle_over_mesivta_20021025

At a shabby, deserted golf course in an isolated area of Calabasas, a half-started construction site sits idle, and some 31 yeshiva bocherim learn Talmud at the makeshift campus of Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman had opened the high school with nine students in 1997, hoping to transform it into a first-class yeshiva complete with dormitories, a beit midrash (study hall) and a basketball court. But, now five years later, his plans are stuck in the mud, because of a legal battle with a nearby homeowners association.

The protracted court case, which is now awaiting an environmental impact report (EIR) from the school, shows how badly a school building project can go when met with fiery opposition by the surrounding community.

The opposition first began in July of 1998, when one-third of the residents of Mountain View Estates -- a gated community of million-dollar homes located a half-mile west of the yeshiva -- signed a petition protesting the project and brought it before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Among their objections were noise, traffic congestion, airborne contamination from digging at the site and "negative impact on the visual quality" of the rustic neighborhood. Representatives of Mountain View's homeowners association even staged a protest for visiting members of the county's regional planning commission on at least one occasion.

Despite the residents' objections the board granted Mesivta a conditional-use permit. But the fight wasn't over. Following the ruling in 1999, Mountain View sued the County for awarding Mesivta the conditional-use permit without an EIR. Last year, the homeowners won in the appellate court, which ordered Mesivta leaders to cease construction until they could come up with a full EIR. Gottesman said he hopes to have the document completed by the end of the year.

Gottesman said he is "disappointed but not heartbroken" by the legal battle. "Our momentum has slowed down but it hasn't been lost," he said. He hopes that the homeowners association's new board of directors -- rumored to be voted in soon -- will be able to conduct better relations between the two groups.

But could the whole process have been avoided if Gottesman had worked with the homeowners' group prior to embarking on the project?

Initially, Gottesman had been surprised at the objections. He had intended to be a good neighbor, he said, meeting with Calabasas city officials and representatives of the community of Hidden Hills -- but not with those at Mountain View. After the battle began in earnest, Gottesman told The Journal in August 1998 that he could have done things differently.

"I admit it was a mistake on my part, not to get in touch with them earlier," Gottesman had said. "Now the hard-earned funds for teaching Torah are instead being used to pay legal fees."

Several current and former members of the Mountain View Estates homeowners association board were contacted for comment, but all declined to speak to The Journal.

Despite the unfinished campus, the school has managed to attract 31 students this year, split among the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Mesivta even graduated its first class of seniors last June, although there will be no such class this year because of the county's restriction on enrollment for the 1999-2000 school year.

Currently, the school employs three teachers fulltime and eleven parttime, plus a trio of kitchen and ground staff. Most of the students live on campus in rudimentary dormitories, although a few commute in from the city with their teachers.

A majority of the infrastructure has been completed, Gottesman said, for what will be an 11-building campus, including grading the property, installing retaining walls and constructing the paved areas for several buildings. They have also put in a sewer system and conduits for water and gas lines.

That work, plus the initial purchase of the 8.5-acre property and legal fees, amounted of $2.5 million, Gottesman said -- nearly all of the money raised to date. The rabbi said he has additional commitments that should bring in another $400,000, but will need to raise $6 million on top of that to complete the project.

"There's a lot of money yet to be raised. We have no mortgage and we have taken no loans, but if we have to we will take out a construction loan," Gottesman said. "The advantage of the project is we don't need one lump sum, because there are 11 small buildings instead of one big one, so we will be able to go in phases."

"I certainly see a challenge ahead but I am optimistic," Gottesman said. "I think as soon as people see action, action begets action. The action of construction begets the action of donation."

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